The Year of Theatre in Russia

The Year of Theatre in Russia

The history of the Russian theatre can be traced back to ancient times. Slavic rites and festive occasions were accompanied by songs, dances and spells, and its participants dressed up as mythological creatures, gods, etc. Every single holiday in Rus’ involved theatrical performances, which were common at first and brought together whole villages, and developed into folk dramas over time. Skomorokhs - wandering singers, musicians, tamers, and acrobats appeared in Rus’ in the ancient past as well.

Theatre aroused genuine interest in the mid-17th century, during the reign of Alexey Mikhailovich. The tsar invited the German pastor Gregory and a troupe, which was made up of actors from different countries; the pastor was also to teach acting to the Russian youth.

The great reformer Peter I did not neglect theater. Peter I wanted to make the theatre clear and available to people, and in 1702 he made an attempt to set up a public theatre.

The daughter of Peter I – Elizabeth – encouraged the development of all forms of arts, including musical theatre and drama theatre. Following the example of the empress, the nobility liked organizing masquerades, spectacles, and theatrical performances. In the mid-18th century the theatre was available just in court circles. There was also the fashion for private theatres, whose actors were court servants.

A public theatre in Yaroslavl, which was founded by the merchant F. G. Volkov (1729–1763), became the first professional theatre in Russia. In 1752 by order of the empress the theatre staged its performances in Tsarskoye Selo. In 1756 the theatre in Yaroslavl was officially named the Russian Theatre of Tragedy and Comedy. The repertoire of the theatre included Russian dramatic works (primarily Sumarokov’s plays).

Theatre art in Russia flourished under Catherine II: the empress invited foreign troupes and set up the Directorate of All Court Theatres, which in different forms existed until the end of the Romanovs' reign. Two Opera Houses and a large theatre building – the future Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre (The Big Stone Theatre), were built in St. Petersburg for the educated class. The imperial theatres were guided by the tastes of the ruling monarchs and interests of the state policy.

The tradition of home theatres was later developed by the Russian nobility: between the 2nd half of the 18th century and the 1840s there were more than 170 serf theatres, 53 of them were in Moscow, including theatres of Prince N. B. Yusupov (1750 – 1831) and N. P. Sheremetev (1751–1809).

Theatre in Russia was gradually conquering not only both capitals, but also provincial towns. In the early 19th century there were theatre circles, amateur and so-called soldiers’, i.e. garrison theatres, and combination companies.

Every decade of the 19th century witnessed the appearance of new theatres in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and provincial towns, as well as theatre schools in Moscow. Productions based on works of A. S. Griboyedov, N. V. Gogol, A. N. Ostrovsky and European playwrights were staged in theatres.

The Alexandrinsky Theatre was founded in St. Petersburg in 1832.

Great theatre theoreticians and practicians appeared in Russia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. K. S. Stanislavsky (1863–1938) and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943) entered the world of theatre with their innovative ideas. They founded the Moscow Art Theatre, which was planned as a public theatre.

Theatre life in Russia began to develop rapidly. The Stanislavsky system was put into practice and attracted followers all over the world.

Stanislavsky discovered a galaxy of prominent directors, such as Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1940) and Yevgeny Vakhtangov (1883–1922), who possessed highly individualistic approaches. The Kamerny Theatre, which was closely related to the work of A. Ya. Tairov (1885–1950), was opened in 1914.

After the October Revolution all Russian theatres came under control of the Arts Department of the State Education Commission. In 1919 theatres were nationalized.

During the Soviet epoch, the state attached considerable importance to theatre: many theatres became academic, new theatres were set up. Ye. B. Vakhtangov took charge of the Moscow Art Theatre’s Third Studio, which was opened in Moscow in 1920 (later the Vakhtangov Theatre). At that time new theatres were founded in Moscow: the Theatre of the Revolution (1922, later renamed the Mayakovsky Theatre); the future Mossovet Theatre (1922); the Moscow Children’s Theatre (1921, was renamed the Central Children's Theatre in 1936) and in Petrograd: the Bolshoi Drama Theatre (1919) and the Theatre for Young Audiences (1922).

The year 1932 marked a new period in theatre work with the development of socialist realism as a new method in art.

During the hardest years of the Great Patriotic War, Soviet theatre art did not disappear. Theatres were evacuated and continued to work on the home front.

New theatrical concepts and aesthetics began to take shape after the war, in the mid-20th century, and were associated with the names of G. Tovstonogov in St. Petersburg, and A. Efros in Moscow.

The post-Soviet theatre was characterized by relative ideological freedom. That period marked the appearance of theatre studios and combination companies. However, the theatre attendance fell as a result of changes in the economic policy.

The situation began to improve at the beginning of the 21st century. The Russian theatre became more diverse as regards the repertoire and productions, which were intended for all age groups and designed to meet all audience tastes. Theatres with a long history enjoyed a revival: new troupes were composed of masters and the youth. New playwrights and directors breathed new life into theatres.

The collection of the Presidential Library, which is dedicated to the Year of the Theatre in Russia, spotlights different aspects of the development of theatre in our country: the origins of the theatre in pre-Petrine Rus’, theatrical traditions of peoples of Russia, activities of theatre administrative bodies in the Russian Empire, present-day searches for new forms and genres, norms and rules for actors and other theatre professionals, stage set design and staging, and theatre life in regions. One of the sections contains materials of personal nature - biographical information about directors, actors and other theatre representatives.

The collection includes official documents, archival materials, monographs, serial publications, visual materials, audiovisual resources, etc. Archival papers of fonds 497 “The Directorate of Imperial Theatres of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”, which are housed in the Russian State Historical Archive, make up the core of the collection. Along with archival institutions, the work on the collection involved participation of federal and regional libraries, and theatres.

The collection currently comprises over 1,000 items.

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